Archive for the 'June' Category

twenty-two: Alice Oswald, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile

As I mentioned briefly last week, it is Alice Oswald who I credit with really getting me into poetry as an adult – both reading contemporary poetry, and also writing myself. I remember reading a piece about her and her book-length poem, Dart, some time in the summer of 2002, in The Times (sadly I can’t find the article online). I was so captured by what I read that I went straight out and bought Dart (published that year) – the first time I’d bought contemporary poetry since I was at primary school, I think.

Dart, which went on to win the 2002 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, totally took me aback. It’s one long book-length poem that follows the river Dart from its source to the sea; in the poet’s own words, it’s a ‘rivermap of voices’, a ‘songline’ of all the people who work on and play around the river. It’s pastoral and muscular, elusive and absolutely poetic… and totally captivating. I would recommend it to anyone, especially people who don’t think they like poetry. It’s quite extraordinary. I remember copying bits of it out in letters to friends.

one step-width water

of linked stones

trills in the stones

glides in the trills

eels in the glides

in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

Having not been all that interested in poetry since I was a teenager, it suddenly seemed essential, and I slowly began to find my way towards enjoying it again. The following spring/summer I began trying to write my own poems (something I’d not done since I was nineteen), and the summer after that, feeling uncreative and frustrated, I signed up for an evening poetry course/class, which was a workshop for both reading and writing (I’d hugely recommend the course and the tutor). And it was this course that really woke something up in me. But I trace it all – my interest in both writing and reading poetry – back to Alice Oswald, and that chance encounter through the pages of a newspaper, with Dart. I hope I get the chance to thank her in person one day.

Apologies for being long and rambly, but I thought in a post about Alice Oswald it would be good to explain how she started everything off for me. Last week I read her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, which I’d been trying to get hold of for a while a few years ago before eventually giving up; I think it was elusive for a while because it was initially published by OUP in 1996, which axed its poetry list in 1998. Happily, it’s since been republished by Faber. The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile won a Forward Poetry Prize (for best first collection) and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1997.

One of the things that fascinated me about Oswald, and which is reflected in this collection, is the poet’s love of gardening and the natural world. The interview I read in The Timesall those years ago mentioned that she was a gardener on the Dartington estate in Devon (her entry on www.contemporarywriters.com says she still is, but I think I’ve read elsewhere that she’s no longer a full-time gardener, and no longer lives in Devon). I remember thinking what an idyllic existence this sounded. Not that I’m a gardener myself; but I love writers who can write about the natural world, about the power and pull of outside, in a non-sentimental, non-Romantic way.

There are lots of gardening/outdoors poems in The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, and they were some of my favourites: ‘Pruning in Frost’, ‘The Glass House’, ‘A Wood Coming into Leaf’, ‘April’, ‘The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile’, ‘Gardeners at the Resurrection’ (which reminded me of Stanley Spencer’s wonderful painting ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’)… And then lots of poems about love and the difficult beauty of relationships, my favourites being ‘Sleep’, ‘Wedding’ and ‘The Melon Grower’. There’s also one long poem called ‘The Three Wise Men of gotham who Set out to Catch the Moon in a Net’, which is funny and beautiful and altogether fantastic (as well as hinting towards Dart, I wonder?)

It’s very, very hard to choose a favourite: there are so many. But if favourite = the one that I would most like to memorise, then it’s probably this, ‘Prayer’ –

Here I work in the hollow of God’s hand
with Time bent round into my reach. I touch
the circle of the earth, I throw and catch
the sun and moon by turns into my mind.
I sense the length of it from end to end,
I sway me gently in my flesh and each
point of the process changes as I watch:

the flowers come, the rain follows the wind.

And all I ask is this – and you can see

how far the soul, when it goes under flesh,

is not a soul, is small and creaturish –

that every day the sun comes silently

to set my hands to work and that the moon

turns and returns to meet me when it’s done.

There’s a fascinating interview with the poet here. Jeanette Winterson says of her that ‘Alice Oswald is the real thing – a true poet of great power and capacity. She writes about the natural world and our relationship to it, reminding us that there is such a thing as a world we didn’t make, and one that we badly need, for sanity’s sake.’ And then there’s this brilliant piece on poetry by Alice Oswald herself, which has lots of fascinating detail about the way she sees poetry (‘danced language’) and how she writes it.

The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber, 2007)

twenty-one: Don Paterson, Landing Light

Another very late post. I pray to the patron saints of poetry (Brigid of Ireland, Cecilia, Columba, David and of course Roger McGough) for forgiveness.

So, on to Don Paterson. Another big name in contemporary British poetry; as well as writing his own prizewinning collections, he’s the editor of Picador’s poetry list – an enviable occupation. I think I first came across him at my poetry group (which was what got me into reading contemporary poetry really, after Alice Oswald had begun the work – of which more this weekend). Certainly this was read out once, a fragment that appears on the imprint page (just below the terms of sale and above the British Library record) of Landing Light

that covers up the hill and cross,
the fallen hush, His own held breath)
but stare it down: the thawing earth
sustains a temporary gloss

– I still don’t know where the rest of the poem is. I shall have to ask Poetry Andrew.

So, he’s one of those big names you need to read, and this, his latest collection, is suitably laden with prizes. I enjoyed it. It reminded me of Ian Duhig – lyrical, tough, sometimes hard work – but I felt much more engaged with it; I found I got the humour, enjoyed the knowingness. I particularly enjoyed his use of form and rhyme; sometimes free verse gets a bit much for me.

Being a sentimental sort of idiot, I loved his poems about his children (‘Walking with Russell’) and hearbreak (‘The Wreck’, ”96′); also ‘Palm’, ‘A Fraud’ and the sexiness of ‘Letter to the Twins’. Most of all I loved ‘The Thread’ –

Jamie made his landing in the world
so hard he ploughed straight back into the earth.
They caught him by the thread of his one breath
and pulled him up. They don’t know how it held.
And so today I thank what higher will
brought us to here, to you and me and Russ,
the great twin-engined swaying wingspan of us
roaring down the back of Kirrie Hill

and your two-year-old lungs somehow out-revving
every engine in the universe.
All that trouble just to turn up dead
was all I thought that long week. Now the thread
is holding all of us: look at our tiny house,
son, the white dot of your mother waving.

Landing Light, Don Paterson (Faber and Faber, 2003, winner of the 2003 T.S. Eliot prize and the 2003 Whitbread Poetry Award)

twenty: Czeslaw Milosz, Second Space

I’ve wanted to read more of the Polish/Lithuanian/American poet Czeslaw Milosz since reading this fantastic poem of his, ‘Love’, a few years ago:

Love means to learn to look at yourself
the way one looks at distant things
for you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
without knowing it, from various ills –
a bird and a tree say to him: friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
so that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
who serves best doesn’t always understand.

I think it’s a deeply beautiful, and deeply spiritual, poem; for a while I knew it by heart and said it to myself whenever I was upset and stomping around town.

Second Space (a gift from Thea – thank you) is, I think, Milosz’s final collection; it was first published in 2004, the year of his death. He worked on the translations himself, along with the poet Robert Hass.

I like the fact that Milosz is, in some senses, easy to read: his poetry is, to use Alice Oswald’s metaphor, like prose dancing. He has a delicious lightness to him, whether he’s pondering old age, theology or his ancestors, with a whimsical, sometimes cryptic, feeling of airiness. To me it feels like a very prose version of poetry, which I found beguiling –

And so it should be, that we spend our lives in the everyday bustle,
Trying to be in agreement with the line of our fate. (from ‘Apprentice’)

Most weeks I feel rather ignorant of the allusions that stud the poetry I’m reading, aware that, without a little extra digging, I may well be missing something. Perhaps that’s inevitable. I always feel, though, that I should follow up the references – find out exactly what Swedenborg thought, or who Mickiewicz was, or more about the history of Poland and Lithuania. So you might have thought I’d be delighted that ‘Apprentice’, Milosz’s long sequence on his relative Oscar Milosz, had the poet’s own gloss at the bottom of each page. But to be quite honest I found it tiring… I didn’t quite have the patience for it.

Lots of favourites: ‘If there is no God’, ‘I should now’, ‘High terraces’, ‘Nonadaptation’, ‘Hear me’, ‘I’, ‘Notebook’, ‘Jackdaws on the tower’ from the ‘Father Severinus’ sequence, and this, ‘Late ripeness’ –

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of the seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.
We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King.

For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.

We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.

Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for fulfillment.

I knew, always, that i would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.

Second Space, Czeslaw Milosz (HarperCollins, 2005)

nineteen: George Szirtes, Reel

Last week, another collection that was a gift from Katharine – my most faithful supplier of poetry. Thank you!

I really enjoyed George Szirtes’ T.S. Eliot prize-winning Reel, although its length (combined with moving house and holiday) meant that I spent longer reading it than I’d have liked – it’s nice to get the sense of a collection by reading it over a week or five days.

What immediately struck me on reading Reel was that the first four poems and the first grouping, ‘Flesh’ (which together account for almost half the book) are written entirely in terza rima, which is quite some feat, I think; its difficult to find so many rhymes in English. But the poet pulls it off – the near-rhymes make it more subtle – and the overall effect is organic, supple, fluid.

‘Flesh: an early family history’ is a fantastic sequence, with layer upon layer of voices. This first section of the book had a real sense of the kind of sweet melancholy that I associate with early childhood, something that’s very hard to put into words and that for me seems absolutely wedded to poetry in some way, so I found the dedication – ‘To the ghost of childhood and the body of the adult’ – very fitting.

The terza rima eventually gives way to the sonnet, another quite precise form. I have to say I love the sonnet – both to read and to write myself – and I deeply enjoyed Szirtes’ mastery of it (partly because it validates my own taste, I suppose). Not many of the collections I’ve read this year feature more than a sonnet or two; none are composed of this many.

I loved ‘The Sound of the Radio’ from ‘Secret Languages’ in ‘Flesh’, and the sonnet-sequence ‘Turquoise’. Here is a beautiful sonnet, ‘The Breasts’:

She gathered up her breasts in her two hands
like small explosions, a soft outward flow,
a timing device that anytime could blow.
So life hangs on the slenderest of strands,
a lover’s hunger can seem all of it,
a child, an image in the mirror, hope,
the way a back, or pair of hips might slope,
or how two closing bodies click and fit.

Time is always against us. Youth slips down
the polished shoulder like a loosening strap.
She looked down from her bosom to her lap
and ran her palms over her dressing gown,
her mirrored face drowned in a cloud of dust:
How beautiful, she thought, and how unjust.

The poet reads some of his pieces here.

Reel, George Szirtes (Bloodaxe Books, 2004), winner of the 2004 T.S. Eliot prize